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Davis shows the way for bike commuting

Posted Feb 10 2009 11:32am
Image of bicycle path in Davis, California
In anticipation of the Amgen Tour of California 's start in Sacramento and Davis, I was asked by the Yolo County Visitors Bureau to write an op-ed touting Davis' stature as a bicycle-friendly community. It was published this week by The Reporter (Vacaville, CA) , the Davis Enterprise , and the Daily Democrat (Woodland, CA) :
Davis shows the way for bike commuting
By Paul Dorn

Bicycling is an inherently sociable activity. Travel in a car is a very alienating experience, containment in a metal vehicle moving at the highest-possible velocity, the terrain is simply scenery seen through a windshield.

When you travel by bicycle, you're immersed in the terrain, and all its delights and surprises. You feel hot breezes; hear laughter and snatches of conversations; smell flowers and the house having a cookout. You are part of your community, not apart from it.

From a car window, ugly strip malls are hastily passed by and parks are briefly glimpsed. On a bicycle seat, expansive parking lots are detested blight and green expanses are savored. Shade hardly matters to climate-controlled travel; mature trees and leafy canopy are celebrated by pedalers. Friends passing in their respective vehicles might wave or offer a quick horn toot--if they see each other at all. Friends passing each other on bicycles may stop, exchange pleasantries and perhaps pedal together for a bit.

Bicycling is intrinsically social. And no city in America is as enthusiastic about bicycling as Davis. It is one of only three platinum-level cities in the country for bicycle friendliness, according to the League of American Bicyclists --the others are Portland, Ore. , and Boulder, Colo. --Davis has the highest per capita bicycle use in the U.S.

In the 1960s, Davis was the first city in the U.S. to create on-street bike lanes--lobbying for changes to the state traffic codes to do so- and has continued to develop its streetscape and infrastructure.

One particularly delightful feature of life in Davis is observing the morning and afternoon "rush hours" on the greenbelt paths, as groups of children travel to and from school on bikes, skateboards and scooters.

The social aspect of bicycling may help explain the appeal of Davis and its environs. It's a city where nearly every resident bicycles, at some point or another, from child to student to parent to grandparent. And this shared sociable travel on two wheels connects residents with each other, inspiring civic engagement with their community and passion about its improvement and environment.

So it's not surprising that Davis will host the first stage of the 2009 Amgen Tour of California , the most important bike race in the U.S. The event will attract the world's best bike racers and marks the American comeback of seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong, meaning the event is sure to attract global attention.

At a time of increasing concern about the environment, energy, traffic and public health, many cities are looking at bicycles as a means to facilitate sustainable, active mobility. Getting more people out of cars and onto bikes will yield enormous benefits. And Davis offers a great model for how communities might incorporate bicycles into their civic life.

Creating more bicycling-friendly communities won't be a cakewalk. Adding bike lanes may require less space for cars, always a contentious challenge for any municipal government concerned about impacts on the retail and employment environment. Yet Davis demonstrates how an improved bicycling environment and a robust local economy aren't mutually exclusive objectives.

Davis's admirable bicycle facilities aren't an accident, but the outcome of visionary city planning more than four decades ago. "Because of certain unique features -- mild climate, level terrain, a large population of healthy, young and cash-poor university students for whom cycling is a natural choice -- Davis would have a high rate of cycling without doing anything," says David Takemoto-Weerts , longtime bicycle program coordinator for UC Davis . "However, it was Davis' decision in the mid-1960s to proactively encourage and protect cycling that has made it the most bike-friendly community in the country."

Davis has grown from 5,000 residents in 1960 to more than 60,000 today, spreading out over a larger area to accommodate that growth. Its character has changed as well, from a purely "college town" to a partial "bedroom community" for nearby Sacramento and even the Bay Area. These changes could have easily crowded out cycling if it weren't for the proactive efforts of city residents, government leaders and city agencies.

"Davis has had the advantage of being able to build cycling infrastructure as it has grown," says Tim Bustos, former bicycle coordinator for Davis. "This is easier than trying to retrofit an older city like San Francisco. However, there's no excuse not to begin creating more favorable cycling conditions. A lot of communities waste time arguing over whether or not to provide for bicycles. In Davis, that argument is over. Bicyclists aren't asking for anything special. We only want the same consideration given to every other transportation mode."

There are challenges in Davis, to be sure. Car use continues to grow along with the city's population. However, given the wide community recognition of the benefits of cycling, it seems certain that Davis will continue to provide an increasingly important model for bike-friendly city planning.

Bicycle racing fans making a first visit to Davis are sure to feel welcome -- and inspired.

Sacramento resident Paul Dorn is a bicycle commuting blogger, writer, and co-author of the The Bike to Work Guide: What You Need to Know to Save Gas, Go Green, Get Fit (Adams Media, 2009). He is employed as the marketing director for the Department of Campus Recreation at UC Davis.

Image: kate at yr own risk , bicycle path in Davis, California
Visit: What Makes A City Bike Friendly? Ask Davis, California , Wired
Visit: Davis retains platinum status as bike capital , Bike Commute Tips Blog
Visit: Davis studies its bicycling activity , Bike Commute Tips Blog
Visit: Davis commemorates 50 years of bicycling , Bike Commute Tips Blog
Visit: Paul Dorn responds to John Forester on Davis , Cyclelicious
Visit: Paul Dorn's Bike Commuting Tips Site
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